Cases of teacher stress have become common. Under the general duty to provide a safe place of work and to safeguard the health of employees, local education authorities and governors are expected to be as diligent in guarding against mental illness as in preventing physical injury. They should be particularly wary when an employee returns to work after a nervous breakdown, as a recent High Court case illustrates.
In Walker v Northumberland County Council 1994, a senior social worker suffered a nervous breakdown after his workload increased, resulting in a prolonged illness. He returned to work but told his employers that they must relieve the pressures on him. This did not happen and Mr Walker suffered another breakdown.
His employers dismissed him on the ground of permanent ill-health and he claimed compensation for unfair dismissal. The court upheld the claim, holding that the county council had been well aware of the extreme pressure on him and should have foreseen that he was therefore subject to an even greater risk of a further breakdown than he had been. His career could be in jeopardy.
In these circumstances, the employers should have provided extra help or reduced the load. By not providing such relief, the council was in breach of its common law duty of care towards its employees. Before employees return to school after stress-related illness, heads (and governors) should consider carefully any requests for a reduction in workload before agreeing to the return.
Governors would be within their rights to refuse permission if they could not meet the demands.
Chris Lowe is honorary legal consultant to the Secondary Heads Association.